Posted on November 27, 2012 by Lou
The year my daughter was born, SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles had a high-profile contract dispute with Kaiser Permanente, the giant HMO. Dispatched from Washington D.C. to help the L.A. local were some of SEIU’s best and brightest organizers and strategists.
It was 1993, two years before SEIU President John Sweeney would lead a hostile takeover of the AFL-CIO. Widely regarded at the time as the Labor Movement’s best hope, Service Employees International Union had resources, talent and a track record. Its Justice for Janitors was a model for audacious action and an inspiration to Labors “new guard” advocates of immigrant organizing and militant tactics.
I was brought on board to write daily negotiation “bulletins” for Local 399 members at Kaiser. A great assignment and a complement to newsletter work I was already doing for HERE, the hotel workers union which, though smaller and poorer, was matching SEIU stride for stride – rebuilding locals in, among other places, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
I was eager to see the Sweeney team in action and was pulled in head first. By attending morning strategy meetings and late-night bargaining sessions, I could shape and deliver the union’s message to Local 399 members at the hospitals. It was an important campaign, a big step up my learning curve and my chance to watch how SEIU would “save” the Labor Movement.
And the Labor Movement was where I belonged.
Before I started working with unions, I was trying to make my way as a public relations consultant, teaming up with agencies to get publicity for companies and their executives. But I was troubled by the idea that my success would help only those at the top. Worried that I was surrendering my principles in the Reagan Years, I was drawn to the Labor Movement where I could apply what I knew in a cause which matched my values.
Labor / management confrontations are intense and exhausting. There’s so much at stake. The union is risking its relationship with the employer and trying to win the loyalty and trust of its members. The power of the union and the economic interests of the workers hang in the balance.
To build its base among health care providers, it was critically important for SEIU to come out strong in this struggle with Southern California Kaiser. Though I had a relatively modest role, I believed in the plan, felt connected to the SEIU operatives and dedicated to the union members who were putting themselves on the line.
Like many people swept up in big projects, however, I had a problem. Hoping to devote as much time as I could to the campaign, I had a very pregnant wife at home who needed my help. L.A. in the early 90s was a front-line city in what could be a revitalizing Labor Movement, but Debbie and I were getting ready for our second kid and another home birth.
Thirty months earlier, Isaac had been born in the bedroom of the apartment we rented in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood in West L.A. We had turned to home birth during Debbie’s first pregnancy when she began attending pre-natal yoga classes at the nearby Sikh center. The so-called “white Sikhs” (white-turbaned mostly Caucasian converts to the religion) welcomed us into a very nurturing network of birthing coaches and practitioners. The director of this growing enterprise was an American-born woman renamed Gurmukh, who would gain stature in Los Angeles as the “yoga teacher to the stars” and now runs workshops around the world.
Though we weren’t about to join the cult, we did decide to snub traditional hospital delivery and maternity practices and sign-on as home-birthers. Debbie and I bonded throughout the process, preparing for the event and defending our choice to skeptical family and friends.
Home Birth One turned out to be quite an ordeal with our first-born lingering face-up (posterior) in the birth-canal for a day-and-a-half before flipping over and finally slipping free. I played a central role in this drama but I’ll hold off on those details for now.
Preparations for the second birth didn’t require as much time and effort. We already knew the routine. But that wasn’t the only reason I was less involved in the days leading up to delivery. It was hard for me to clear-out early while my SEIU colleagues worked late into the night. Organized Labor and Debbie’s labor were colliding and I was feeling guilty at both ends.
Though serious problems between Debbie and me were looming just ahead, Home Birth Two went very smoothly. After an abbreviated three-hour labor by the mom, the baby was born in the bedroom as planned with the midwife, her assistant and me doing our part. Delighted that our girl had come out so nicely, Debbie and I woke up Isaac at 3:00 a.m. to introduce “what’s her name.”
Despite some unfinished business at home, I would soon be back at SEIU.
The Kaiser campaign had been in full swing. There was a one-day strike with lots of media coverage and ongoing research by SEIU to identify where Kaiser was “vulnerable.” The union was building a case that the HMO was not fulfilling its community and legal obligation for emergency care and was also preparing to urge Southern California unions to pull Kaiser as a medical plan option.
Though I was learning from SEIU, I was also watching smart managers and executives counter the union by warning employees – our members – that their local was out to damage their employer’s reputation and chase away patients. At the table, Kaiser negotiators would assert that we couldn’t hurt them enough to change their contract proposals.
The company knew that SEIU had not and could not adequately prepare its members for a long strike. Kaiser had been union for decades. In fact, World War II ship and aircraft builder Henry Kaiser originated the HMO idea to keep the workforce healthy, productive and on-the-job. Kaiser’s network of enterprises, including its massive steel mill in Fontana near San Bernardino (which shut down decades ago), were unionized as a matter of course in the 1940s and 1950s.
Southern California Kaiser hospital workers were accustomed to a bureaucratic style of representation. Upgrading a “legacy” union into a fighting one wouldn’t happen overnight. Saving the Labor Movement wasn’t going to be easy.
Back at my desk at work, three or four days after my daughter’s birth, I was on the phone with my wife. She was recovering quickly and our newborn – and her 2 ¾ year old brother – were doing fine. But something was wrong. The baby still didn’t have a name.
Next to me in the office was Local 399’s communications director, Tom Ramsay, who overheard my end of the conversation with Debbie as we tossed around a few options.
Tom jumped at the chance when I brought him into the conversation.
“You’re Jewish right?” Ramsay asked.
I assured him that I was.
“How about Emma?” he suggested, “after Emma Goldman.”
“How about Emma?” I repeated on the phone to Debbie.
I knew a little of Goldman’s biography. Particularly memorable was her portrayal by Maureen Stapleton in Reds, the 1981 film directed by and starring Warren Beatty. When I came home later, we looked up Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) in the Almanac.
What a resume…
Russian-born American anarchist, renowned Jewish atheist, convicted World War I pacifist, “free love” advocate and union activist.
The stalemate was broken.
Partly in honor of this proto-feminist, Emma took Debbie’s last name, Bornstein. This would lead in the future to some ambiguity (in school, for example) over Emma and Isaac’s sibling status. But I’ve defended that choice as a repudiation of marital-based gender bias.
The Local 399 campaign would end with a “face-saver” for the union. But the bloody battle had its payoff down the road. Two years later, John Sweeney left SEIU to become president of the AFL-CIO. In 1997 he negotiated a partnership pact with Kaiser which enables “joint decision making” and helps the HMO market to union members across the nation. I’ve always believed that our campaign set the stage for this peace treaty.
In recent years, there’s been upheaval in SEIU’s health care divisions but that’s another story.
The Kaiser campaign – despite its flaws – was hard fought and a serious struggle; something I would see more of in the 1990s and beyond. And, of course, I’ll always appreciate the special circumstances of this contract battle, which brought into our family an Emma of our own.